By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
A new international academic exchange center in Wuhan will honor the late chancellor of the University of California (UC) at Berkeley. It will teach Chang-Lin Tien’s values of community service.
Wuhan native Dr. Chang-Lin Tien led UC Berkeley from 1990 to 1997, and earned many honors. The campus named a library for him after his four decades teaching there.
But Huangpi, Wuhan’s Chang-Lin Tien Center is not only the first time a local Chinese government is honoring one of the most famous Chinese American scientists and a national champion of affirmative action, it is intended to extoll the family values that gave rise to Tien’s success in the United States and thus serve as a site where young Chinese can be transformed.
“What we are doing,” said brother C.C. Tien, of Seattle, “is also creating a museum to display the Tien family history and teachings.” C.C. Tien is the surviving elder brother of the chancellor, who died in 2002 from brain cancer.
Before he died, Chang-Lin achieved the distinction of being the first Asian American to lead a top tier research university. And if not for the outright racism and bigotry of the time, he would have been the first Asian American to serve in a cabinet position.
“They want to honor our family teachings. They want people to understand the origins and values of a family that could give rise to an immigrant like my brother,” said Tien. “My brother believed in building community above all else.” He added, “He believed everyone should have a fair chance.”
By the time California banned affirmative action in 1996, Chang-Lin had already launched a partnership between Berkeley and California K–12 public schools to improve the performance of marginalized students. The program later became a model for a nationwide program.
“Chancellor Tien taught us we have to stand up for ourselves,” said Connie So, an expert in the Chinese diaspora who teaches at the University of Washington.
At a graduate student of color conference at UC Berkeley where So was one of the hosts, the chancellor told a story of his early student days at Princeton. A professor repeatedly heckled him by asking, “Chinaman Tien, can you get me some water?”
Chang-Lin at first acquiesced.
“He said he did it because he thought it would be impolite to refuse,” said So. “He did not realize it was racist. Then a classmate explained that he was targeted and no one else was ever referred to that way. So Chancellor Tien was upset once he realized that. So the next time the professor called on his, he said, ‘I am not a Chinaman,’ and he asked the professor why he never asked anyone else to get water. The professor apologized to him in front of the class.”
Chang-Lin completed a second master’s degree and a PhD at Princeton in two years, and at 22 years of age became the youngest ever assistant professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at UC Berkeley. During his term as chancellor, President Clinton was on the verge of appointing him Secretary of Energy. But Tien was abandoned because of his ethnicity, say scholars of Asian American history.
The district government in Huangpi, Wuhan, will begin construction in March or April on the multi-million dollar Chang-Lin Tien Center. The center will fill a plot of land nearly the size of two football fields, according to a memorandum of understanding drafted in consultation with Tien.
The memorandum, dated Nov. 28, 2018, states that C.C. Tien was led by a delegation to view the site and finalize details, such as a timeline to demolish and remove existing buildings. The demolition is set to be completed within two months, and construction is projected to be completed in approximately a half year, according the document, which was authorized by the Huangpi District Committee.
Originally, district officials apparently conceived of the center as a way to attract tourism. They contacted Tien three years ago and proposed building it in the Tien family’s ancestral home, in the center of the city.
But Tien disagreed.
“It would have displaced too many people,” he said.
Instead, he opened discussions with them about finding a new site, and he used his prestige, which the officials wanted, to transform the idea of the center into a place where the history and values of the Tien family would be on display. For instance, Tien assigned his relatives still living in Wuhan the task of tracking down the family’s history of service to the state, which included an ancestor that served as a high-ranking scholar official in the Qing Dynasty. Grave rubbings unearthed in their quest could be displayed in the museum.
His idea is to show that success involves serving others.
“My brother believed in service to the community above all else, but these were values that were passed down to us,” he said.
Among the exhibits will be his father’s gown that he wore as a government official during the Republican Period (ROC). Such an artifact, Tien believes, will suggest to young people that the previous government of China also made contributions to the livelihood of the Chinese people, offering a more balanced view of China’s 20th century turmoil.
C.C. Tien arrived in the United States in 1954, the first of the family to venture away from Taiwan, where they had escaped after the fall of the Republic of China to the Communists.
Working long hours and alone in New York City, he continuously sent money home and two years later, his brother, Chang-Lin Tien, came to America. Tien continued working, first designing bridges and later at Boeing as an aeronautical engineer, as his brother began a stellar academic career that included advocacy for affirmative action and the creation of a program to help disadvantaged high school students that spread nationwide.
For the older brother, the establishment of the center is also a symbolic return of his family to their birthplace, a place he has in some sense been trying to return to his entire life.
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.